Friday, September 28, 2012

Nilsson Week: Domino and Stern Discuss Nilsson, Part 2

To conclude Nilsson week, we now give you Part 2 of the conversation between Matt Domino and David Stern, who might be two of the biggest Harry Nilsson fans under the age of 40.

On Monday, we ran Part 1 of the conversation. You can read it here.

Editor’s Note: I hope everyone has enjoyed all of the Nilsson-related content this week. He was a singular talent that has become a large presence in my music-appreciating life and I wanted to get a few different perspectives on why people love him, hate him, appreciate him or at the very least find his music faintly enjoyable; and by doing so, I hoped that I could understand even better why I have come to like his music so much.

Now, maybe some of you know more about Nilsson than you probably ever wanted to know. However, you can rest easy knowing that you can always blame me.

DOMINO: Alright, David, we’ve already gone really deep on Nilsson’ late-70’s era when he was depressed, drunk all the time and writing insular, absurdly comic songs. We can all agree that was a dark time that does not do justice to the overall talent and oeuvre that Nilsson had built up before 1973-1975. He had actually burst on the scene in about 1967 when he was discovered as a gifted songwriter while he was working at a bank. Then, he wrote songs for the Monkees and other artists until he released his first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, in 1968, which was then fully endorsed by John Lennon and mostly endorsed by the rest of the Beatles. So, David, starting there, what do you think it was about that first Nilsson record that caught the attention of the Beatles? Could it have been the mind-blowing medley of Beatles covers that Nilsson effortlessly performs on the middle of Pandemonium Shadow Show?

STERN:  It would be easy for me to say that Nilsson is simply the best and even the Beatles weren’t stubborn enough not to admit it, but I know that would only make you angry.  Nilsson’s version of “You Can’t Do That”, which impressively quotes—both in lyric and melody—“Drive My Car”, “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, “Good Day Sunshine”, “A Hard Days Night”, “Rain”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “Daytripper”, “Paperback Writer”, “Do You Want To Know A Secret”, “Yesterday”, “I’m Down”, and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” caught the attention of Lennon, who supposedly listened to the album for a day and a half straight. The song was Nilsson’s first hit and Lennon called to congratulate him. 

But was this track—excused of gimmickry by sheer brilliance—enough for the Beatles to believe in Nilsson as more than a one-trick pony?  If you look to the full track-list of Pandemonium it’s easy to see how Nilsson could have been considered—even subconsciously—an American counterpart to the Beatles. You have a smattering of pop song styles wrapped up in experimental production (this was 1967), wry wit, dashes of country music (“She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”), songs of longing, a song about mankind’s innate violence (“Ten Little Indians”), a contemptuous song towards a woman that is really a perverted euphemism (“Cuddly Toy”), and a song about parental abandonment (“1941”). And they are all as catchy and clever as anything. Sounds like a Beatles album doesn’t it?

DOMINO: Don’t you even insinuate that Nilsson was better than the Beatles! (I know you know better!) No, but Pandemonium Shadow Show had an absolutely similar aesthetic to a latter-day Beatles album, especially with the left-in, “OK, Mr. Mix” studio talk before “Cuddly Toy” as well as Nilsson’s maniacal raving and jokes that open and close the album.

I mean, it's obviously interesting music filled with great melodies, so it makes sense that it would keep someone like John and also the rest of the Beatles in rapt attention, which I’m sure was extremely difficult for them  during the 1968 era. Between having the world in their palm, going to Rishikesh, exposing the Maharishi, making The White Album in about four or five different studios, and breaking up while filming the first performance of “Hey Jude” on live television it was probably hard for them to truly concentrate on any new music.

But like you said, Pandemonium Shadow Show has amazing songs. I’m listening to “1941” right now and its probably one of the smartest, sharpest, but saddest songs of all-time. Then you have “Cuddly Toy,” which is definitely in my Nilsson Top Ten as well as one of the only songs I can kind of play on piano. I used to listen to it all the time before I’d go to work in the Conde Nast Building in order to pump myself up for work and to try and muster up enough of a smart ass charm to get through the day. Plus, the cover of “River Deep-Mountain High” at the end of the album is kind of staggering. When Nilsson pulls back and wails “Well I’m gonna be as faithful as that puppy/You know I’ll never let you down!” I get goosebumps and then try to imagine someone or something I could possibly devote that emotion to. I used to walk aimlessly around Williamsburg last fall and listen to that song on repeat (while mouthing the lyrics and singing style very actively) until the October nights rolled in and my coffee wore off.

However, I might actually love Aerial Ballet more. It has “Together,” which is another one of my Top Ten Nilsson songs, as well as “I Said Goodbye To Me,” which is where I think he truly started exhibiting the Nilsson sense of humor in his music. Of course, I’m talking about the end of the song when Nilsson overdubs himself singing the chorus in an overly-sentimental French accent. That was actually the moment when it all clicked for me and I understood why he was so great.

What about you? What’s your favorite early album and when did you have your own “a-ha” moment with Nilsson?

STERN: (*Stern’s note: if anybody needs another reason to hate Billy Joel, listen to Nilsson’s “Together” and then listen to “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”... the “Brenda and Eddie” section... eh?  Joel’s ripping off my boy!)

I bought Nilsson’s first six albums (not counting Spotlight on Nilsson as an album) in the same purchase so it’s hard to say that one stuck out any more than another because I experienced them all at the same time.  So, one listening experience didn’t inform the next in the typical fashion that having to wait for a next release (or even just waiting to get an album you simply haven’t yet gotten) would.  That said, when I was first starting listening to Nilsson, it was Harry that I kept gravitating towards.  It might have partially been due to the fact that “I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City” (Harry’s bid for the theme to Midnight Cowboy) was a song I was obsessed with.  But the album itself, one that’s often overlooked in any Nilsson discussion, has the most diverse track listing in his catalog.  And when he makes a stylistic decision on Harry, he does so authentically. “Open Your Window” isn’t a vocal jazz song through a pop song’s lens or a sendup; it’s an actual vocal jazz song.  The same can be said about “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” and music hall/rag, as well as many of the other tracks on the album. 

It was also the first album where fidelity made a significant leap (Nilsson Sings Newman is too sparsely orchestrated to have that distinction), which meant it was the first time in his chronology that you realized he was the real deal.  His albums would no longer be under the influence of the psychedelic production present on his earlier releases so there was no question as to the capabilities of his voice.  That was the “a-ha” moment (it’s not my favorite album or anything). 

Regarding what you were talking about earlier, I also enjoy Aerial Ballet more than Pandemonium.  I think Nilsson’s creative muscle is flexed more on the album and that it runs more evenly (especially with the “Little Cowboy” reprise), though I suppose those are direct results of his simply having written all but one of the songs on it.  And “Don’t Leave Me” might be in my top five of Nilsson songs not just because of that Bacharach-ian drum beat that I’ve always loved but also because of that insanely good, virtuosic scat section.  Scat?  Always feels weird when I associate that word with something positive but it’s probably one of his best vocal performances and that’s saying a lot. 

It’s amazing how much certain artists are able to get away with.  I think back to the years I spent hating Fleetwood Mac only to eventually find myself inoculated by some of their albums, pardoning, growing out of, or forgetting what I had once held against them.  But with Nilsson it’s always there; if you hear “Coconut” and you haven’t yet gotten what he’s about, then that song is bullshit.  But it makes total sense with consideration to the rest of his output.  It’s hard to appreciate a musician who often makes things fun or funny, but as your realization that it’s one of the virtues of that specific artist becomes clearer, so does your acceptance of that element.

DOMINO: While we’ve been having this back-and-forth, I just read the original Rolling Stone review of Nilsson Schmilsson, which says the following: “What keeps Nilsson’s calculated approach from becoming offensive or sterile is his playfulness ‘Yes, I know,’ he seems to be saying, ‘that you know that I know exactly what I’m doing. That’s exactly why I’m doing it.’” That quote blew my mind because to me, that’s what Nilsson was about.

I think Mark Jack made a good point in his fantastic piece from yesterday when he analyzed the fact that Nilsson was nostalgic for a nostalgia for another time. He wasn’t really nostalgic for his own youth, but for his parents’ youth, or maybe just Youth in general. And there is something utterly powerful and actually, to me, crippling about that fact. Nilsson loved well-written songs, he loved tunes, he loved the Beatles and their intellect and craftsmanship. Yet, at the same time, it seemed like he saw or recognized that in the end they’re just songs and they can be powerful but they’re never actually going to get you to that place you want to go. So, instead he kind of looks at the listener (in song format obviously) and acknowledges that they see through him and he sees through them and that the song itself is a farce and if its gonna be a farce, well, hell, he’s gonna make it sound as beautiful or throw as many jokes in there as he possibly can.

In some sense, I guess what I’m saying here is that Nilsson is the existentialist songwriter. He is post-modern. I’ve never thought about this all until I read that review, but there’s something true about it even though I hate post-modernism and basically love everything about Nilsson and his music.

And, what’s interesting is that perhaps the one place where Harry was not self-aware, when he wasn’t winking or being playful was on Nilsson Sings Newman, which was perhaps his most powerful album and overall vocal performance. It’s almost as though, because the songs are not his, he doesn’t have to obscure his own feelings in jokes or humor. He can earnestly sing “You and me you and me, baby” a million different times and ways in “Love Story” and it can come off like the most romantic and innocent song in the world. He can just break a grown man’s heart as he tells the story of growing up in “So Long, Dad” and of course he makes “Living Without You” into the opera of the heartbroken 20-something city-dweller. It’s the one album where Harry completely plays it straight and it just has to be considered his masterpiece.

OK, now tell me what you think of all of that!

STERN:  I would first of all disagree that Nilsson Sings Newman is his masterpiece.  How can it be his masterpiece when the songs aren’t his (his humor that we cherish is not as prevalent or, in your opinion, not present at all)?  Not to mention the fact that Harry, despite its stylistic vacillations, is an album also played relatively straight but definitely not his masterpiece.  That honor has—and rightfully, I should add—been assigned to Nilsson Schmilsson, an album where each song is great, true to Nilsson’s character in every way, and his first real step into real rock and roll. 

As far as Newman being his most powerful album, I would say that its tracklist lends itself to being the most consistently heart-wrenching, but again—and of course—that is because those are Randy Newman’s songs and the instrumentation is so desperate sounding.  Also, although the lyrics remained unchanged between Newman and Nilsson, you could easily argue that Harry wasn’t exactly straightforward.  The playful spirit is still present in the intro to “Vine St.” and the vocal harmonies at the end of “Living Without You”.  Plus the call-and-response female soul belting at the end of “I’ll Be Home,” as beautiful as it is, is ostensibly tongue-in-cheek (you have to admit it caught you off-guard the first time you heard it, even though it was awesome). 

Also, Nilsson can never be fully separated from the songs on Nilsson Sings Newman.  Just as songs and lyrics are left to be related to and interpreted by their audience, so they are by their coverers.  When Harry sings “Love Story” it isn’t far fetched to assume he recalled his own experiences in love to elevate his vocal performance, something he was always so good at.  And in the specific case of “Love Story”, the lyrics are already pretty funny and seemingly predestined to be sung by Nilsson (“We’ll have a kid, or maybe we’ll rent one/He’s got to be straight, we don’t want a bent one”).  “So Long, Dad” perhaps illustrates this point even more clearly.  Although written by Newman, one could see it as a fitting companion to “1941” as both deal with the struggles of the father-son relationship, the very thing responsible for Nilsson’s “ultimate sadness” and, probably, his “nostalgia for youth in general.”

DOMINO: Touche. I knew I shouldn’t have overstepped my boundaries in a conversation with the Nilsson expert. However, I argue that I set you up really nicely to explain why Nilsson Schmilsson is his masterpiece by using my Nilsson Sings Newman argument, even though I ALREADY KNEW THAT NILSSON SCHMILSSON WAS THE TRUE MASTERPIECE! That’s what being an Editor-in-Chief is all about!

No, but I like how this conversation has come full circle. We see that, at no matter what point you look at Nilsson, in his work or his career, you will always find that element of comedy used to obscure the deep “ultimate sadness” that stems from a nostalgia for youth in general, for those “happier days” as he says in “Gotta Get Up.” However, those days don’t exist, as Nilsson sadly found out, and that blow can be crushing. The weight of that discovery seems to be what Nilsson carried with him throughout his life and career. And (as you and I already covered) it slowly began to creep into his music in increasingly overt ways as Nilsson just threw whatever joke he (and only he) found funny into the mix, because, well, why the hell not? Nothing matters anyway.

Wow. So, on that note, let’s go with what’s good. Even though you say Nilsson Schmilsson is his masterpiece, I know its not your favorite. What ya got?

STERN: Before I answer that, I just want to say that Nilsson died happy, and that his life isn’t quite as tragic as his career and reputation might lead one to least not the end of it.

But you are right.  It’s the follow-up to Nilsson Schmillson, Son of Schmilsson, that is my personal favorite of his albums.* I would never argue that it is his best, however; it doesn’t possess the same apparent quality or flow of its predecessor even though many of its songs are just as good as any other.  The thing about the album that I really love is that you can see his songs turning from fun to downright absurd (“Joy”, “I’d Rather Be Dead”), yet one’s enjoyment of them is never impaired due to the fact that their inanities are camouflaged by otherwise normal—for Nilsson’s standards—tracks.  Plus “The Lottery Song” is one of my all-time favorites.  And, correct me if I’m mistaken, but I’m pretty sure the “good bad, good bad” line in “Joy” is one of the things that initially hooked you.

(*Editor's Note: Read this sentence again. Harry Nilsson is perhaps the only artist that would inspire a serious conversation about two albums he made that had titles making fun of his own name as well as the concept of sequels and marketing.)

DOMINO: You’re right, the ending of “Joy” definitely hooked me because it tied into that deep part of myself that wants to turn everything into a joke—which is clearly no way to survive or make your way in the world.

Son of Schmilsson also contains one of my Top 5 Nilsson Moments/Songs in “At My Front Door.” And for the hell of it, let’s take a look at my Top 5 Nilsson Moments.

5. “At My Front Door” — David, you know I love a good piano rocker and this one has it all. Plus, one of the piano breakdowns reminds of this legendary scene from Diner.

4. “Let the Good Times Roll” — Again we have another piano-based rocker. This cover from Nilsson Schmilsson sounds exactly like what I want my life to be like. Does that make any sense? There is a feel good vibe to this version of the song that I just can’t explain. All I know is that whenever I feel any kind of crappy or even a little bit depressed, I listen to this and I picture all of my friends from every walk of life hanging out in some bar somewhere with tons of beer and a piano. And I’m being really funny.

3. The very beginning of “Vine Street” — The partial song that Nilsson makes up at the beginning of his cover of “Vine Street” on Nilsson Sings Newman has got to be one of the greatest lost tracks of all-time and also one of Nilsson’s best vocal performances. I mean, where the hell did he come up with that stuff?

2. “Down to the Valley” — This track, which I think was just released as a single, has got to be one of my favorite Nilsson songs. It has tremendous drums and a rhythm section like “Rainmaker” but it has a peak-Nilsson playfulness with his singing of the “la-la’s” as well as the bass-drum-percussion that surrounds it. The song feels at times like a rubber band, then, with the brass, for a second like the Stones until it soars like the Beatles or some other artist I can’t even think of. This happens all over the course of about 2:15.

1. “Don’t Forget Me” — We’ve covered this track a bunch during this Nilsson Week, but the moving quality of this song can’t be overstated enough. I listened to this song on repeat for three hours while I wrote a short story this summer—the heartfelt, crushing emotion just pressed me on to create. Plus the song sounds like a film score that Ennio Morricone wished he had written.

OK, David. There are my Top Five Nilsson moments/songs. You can do the same or, if that’s too hard, you can just take us out on some kind of high-note/summary. The floor is yours Mr. Stern.

STERN: God (Nilsson), this is difficult.  Not only because he is my hero and I love (almost) all of his songs, but because his discography offers so many different elements to appreciate.  It could be that a certain song is funny, heartbreaking, downright catchy, or that his vocal performance is particularly inspired, among other reasons.  I really don’t think I can narrow it down to five that I hold above all others, but here are a few that come to mind right away.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — Not only the most stirring version of this song, but also one of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.  How did we not really talk about A Little Touch of Schmilsson In the Night?

“I’ll Be Home” — This was one of my favorite Randy Newman songs and Nilsson’s version is haunting.  There’s an outtake version of it that is especially sad.

“The Lottery Song” — One of those ones that’s just catchy as hell.  The feeling I have about this song, like I have about many others, is that Nilsson wrote it in the shower.  I don’t know why, but it has that vibe.

“Jump Into the Fire” — Had to pick a rocker and this is an obvious choice.  The closest Nilsson ever got to Krautrock.  Plus, it was the second-to-last song that LCD Soundsystem ever played.

“Don’t Forget Me” — We’ve covered this one and I still think it’s one of his quintessential tracks.  It’s funny, sad, funny/sad, sung perfectly (even with a blown voice), and its sentiment captures, perfectly, the spirit of his career.

This conversation we’ve had hasn’t changed my opinion on Nilsson—my love for him and his music is unwavering—but it has allowed me to put my finger things I’ve always known but never noticed.
He is a great example of an artist who, despite his general accessibility, takes some getting used to.
Within his albums he has so many different personalities, so many different songs, and so many different types of songs, so to be able to grasp the entirety of it in order to form a singular identity can be challenging.  On top of that, you have an established monolithic personality that was notoriously the life of the party, which was worth a good story so long as it wasn’t your party.  A performer like that, as Nilsson certainly was, can be extremely frustrating especially when he or she is hitting their mark and capable of reaching unmatchable heights.


  1. I am pretty biased, I admit, but I have to say that I think a lot of your observations and conclusions here are pretty spot on, in a way that would be meaningful to my dad.

    It's true what Stern says, that he was in a happy place at the end of his life. Not that he was ready to die at 52, but he had found a lot of meaning and fulfillment in being a devoted husband and father by then. So in those ways his story is not so tragic. Too short, yes, but the line doesn't only point down after 1973.

    But in a certain way he was troubled in the end by the idea that people didn't "get" what he had been trying to do. It was never a question of needing everyone to "like" his music, but there is a certain almost existential frustration that comes from being perpetually miscast or shallowly understood.

    He died before the age of the internet, and before this current wave of smart, thoughtful younger people had discovered his music. If I could have one wish, besides, you know, getting him back, it would be to let him know that the kids are still listening, and that they (some awesome ones anyway,) totally get it.

    Thanks, guys!

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